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RICHMOND, Va. — The former starting quarterback of the Washington Redskins moved anonymously as he scooted through the doors of the Bon Secours Training Center and made his way to the practice field Tuesday.
Roughly 45 minutes of the Redskins’ padded morning practice had already passed, and the fact Alex Smith’s entrance went largely undetected by the fans in attendance — despite the fact his red shirt, white hat and black shorts contrasted strongly with the gleaming silver crutches that reflected off the morning sun at his side — never would have happened a year ago.
Back then, fans bought his jersey and cheered his name while teammates spoke glowingly about the sense of calm he brought to the organization. Smith was acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs in January 2018 after five consecutive winning seasons. He was a professional, someone who knew how to win.
And for the first two months of last season, Smith lived up to expectations. He guided Washington to a 6-3 start that had fans dreaming of the Redskins’ first playoff berth since the 2015 season.
Then came Nov. 18, 2018, the day the Redskins lost to the Texans 23-21 and Smith almost lost so much more, courtesy of a freak injury he suffered while trying to run away from two blitzing Texans.
“Oh, I knew [it was bad] right away, as soon as I looked down and my leg wasn’t straight,” Smith told Yahoo Sports with a chuckle on Tuesday. “You’re so used to your whole life, when you look down, your leg is straight. And [then] it wasn’t anymore.”
The injury was nothing short of devastating, for both the Redskins — who promptly lost five of their last six games without Smith, finishing 7-9 and out of the playoffs — and their veteran quarterback. Redskins great Joe Theismann, whose career came to an end in 1985 with a horrific leg injury, said recently that Smith’s injury was exactly like his.
“I was in so much shock right away that I wasn’t in a ton of pain,” Smith said. “I kinda just really, to be honest, said, ‘Oh wow, I’ll get put back together, they’ll do what they do.’ I’ll do my rehab … and I knew the season was done, I definitely knew that, but I had no idea, zero appreciation, for what a broken tib-fib is and what the recovery’s like.”
He’d soon learn as the injury worsened due to infection, which led to more surgeries and an extended hospital stay. Smith spent the first four months of his recovery in a wheelchair, and had to contend with an external fixator, a large, circular, metal device that stabilized his leg.
This whole time, Smith kept coming back to how he found himself having to rely on his wife and family to help him do everyday actions he’d taken for granted, all because of one freak play.
“I was in the best shape I’ve ever been in — feeling great, feeling strong — I still think about that play a lot,” Smith said. “I don’t know what happened, how it happened or why. But it was just one of those things, I think, where everything was right for that to happen. Or wrong.”
Smith laughs at the latter quip, an indication of his triumphant spirit and desire to play football again despite the fact he turned 35 in May.
“I’m still determined [to play], still marching down the road, still optimistic,” Smith told Yahoo Sports. “I want to push it, for the challenge’s sake. I want to see what I’ve got … I enjoy the challenge, even to this [recovery], coming out here and being with the guys. It’s not going to last forever. I’d like to see where it leads.”
Here’s how big Smith is on challenges: when asked if the goal is to get back to be an NFL starter, he made his long-term hope clear.
“Well, it’s hard enough to play the quarterback position when you’re 100 percent, and I don’t think you could fake it if I wasn’t,” Smith said. “So the goal is to get back to that, yeah.”
Smith has been taking small, but important, steps toward that goal. Over the course of his recovery, he has regained the ability to drive and work out, and in mid July, he was allowed to shed the fixator for the first time in over seven months.
Smith’s desire to play again becomes obvious when he starts talking about the effect his renewed presence around the team has had on him. “I feel back, getting to know the guys,” Smith said. “This time of year, if you play long enough ... you start to [feel the pull].”
And it’s overwhelmingly clear the Redskins are happy to have him back around the team. Second-year running back Derrius Guice even briefly interrupted an interview Smith was doing with a reporter to make it known.
“Alex, we love you!” Guice said, prompting Smith to smile.
Smith, who has $31 million guaranteed owed to him by the Redskins for the next two seasons, says he has no timeline for his return to the field, other than it won’t be this year. He says he has kept his arm in shape and is optimistic he can ditch the crutches in a few weeks. Then it’s on to walking, then jogging and jumping, running and eventually, taking drops in the pocket.
“If you know Alex, you know he’s gonna do everything he can to come back — that’s all you can say about him, he’s one of the greatest competitors there is,” Gruden told Yahoo Sports. “Those injuries hurt him a little bit, but he’s got a great attitude and a great mindset of he’s gonna get well, he’s gonna get better and he’s gonna play. And that’s all we can do is support him in that regard any way we can. We’re all behind him, we’ll do anything for him.”
In the meantime, the Redskins are counting on Smith to be a positive influence this season on first-round rookie Dwayne Haskins and a sounding board for veterans Case Keenum and Colt McCoy, who are also competing for the starting job in Smith’s absence.
“Just his presence [will help],” Gruden said. “He’s been in all these situations and he knows what they’re like. Playoff situations, third down, red zone, clock stoppages, all that stuff … he can help the quarterbacks out.
“It’s another set of eyes. We’ve got [offensive assistant] Matt Cavanaugh who played the position, [quarterbacks coach] Tim Rattay who played the position. I played it, to an extent. [Offensive coordinator] Kevin O’Connell played it. So we have a pretty good group of guys who can help these quarterbacks out, but nobody like Alex who has been there and done that as many times as he has.”
But while Smith is willing and excited to help his fellow quarterbacks — he pledged to do his part to help them, much like he did for the eventual league MVP in Kansas City — Gruden and the Redskins also know that Smith is equally focused on returning to the field.
“I’ve got my head down, plugged in,” Smith said, shortly before scooting back through the doors of the Bon Secours Training Center. “It’s not time to look up yet.”
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